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Totem Pole by James Bender at Pike Place Market (#72: 15046 bytes) 

“Chief Seattle’s” famous speech?

Below is the text of “Chief Seattle’s” speech as translated by Dr. Henry A. Smith. Its authenticity is suspect, since it was published in a small journal in 1887, 33 years after Chief Seattle supposedly uttered it in 1854 in his native Salish language. Dr. Smith did not speak Salish, although he may have known Chinook, a local pidgin language. If Chief Seattle actually said these words, someone else at the 1954 speech must have translated it from Salish into Chinook and Smith then made notes about it, which he kept for more than 30 years before writing his “Chief Seattle” speech. We do have well-documented records of at least one other speech that Chief Seattle gave.
The tiny newspaper that published Smith’s “Chief Seattle” was the first place that ever mentioned it. As Jerry Clark of the National Archives and Records Administration and other experts point out, other than this newspaper article, we have no evidence that Chief Seattle ever gave this speech. Smith was an amateur poet and his “Chief Seattle” speech sounds suspiciously like his own poetry. Also, his speech emphasizes a theme that was popular among European Americans in the late 19th century—the inevitable disappearance of American Indians.
Chief Seattle’s “other speech”--his “web of life” speech--is a fake, as writers such as former Seattle Times reporter Ross Anderson pointed out. No matter what you read in any source, Chief Seattle NEVER said anything about “weaving the web of life.” This phrase came from an imaginary speech written in 1972 by screenwriter Ted Perry for a documentary about the environment. Perry’s “Chief Seattle” speech was an ecological message of universal brotherhood—the exact opposite of the dark, haunting message in Dr. Smith’s “Chief Seattle” speech, about the deep gulf between Indians and Europeans, and the imminent disappearance of Chief Seattle’s people--which fortunately never happened. Chief Seattle’s descendents are still here in the Northwest and doing better than ever. Check out their well-run casino and resort center, which has recently made them relatively well-off and independent. It’s an American capitalism at its best--an example of how a group of smart, hardworking people can persevere against great odds, plan well and make good decisions, and become successful, all while collectively helping each other.
A later fake “Chief Seattle” speech mentions the slaughter of buffalo on the American plains, an effort that the the U.S. government began as part of their policy of genocide against the plains Indians in the 1880s—more than 15 years after Chief Seattle died 1,000 miles away on Puget Sound, where never a single buffalo roamed during his lifetime. If Chief Seattle ever mentioned an animal in any speech, it would have been a salmon, orca, eagle, otter, or other animal that lived in, on, or near the waters of Puget Sound.
An informed respect for the way Northwest Coast Indians actually lived—instead of the way others fantasize they lived—would have exposed the fake “weaving the web of life” speech as a fraud long ago. As usual, too many people would rather believe myths about movie Indians than learn about the real people.

Scraps from a Diary:
Chief SeattleA gentleman by Instinct
His Native Eloquence, etc., etc.

by Henry A. Smith
10th article in the series “Early Reminiscences”
Seattle Sunday Star, October 29, 1887

Old Chief Seattle was the largest Indian I ever saw, and by far the noblest-looking. He stood 6 feet full in his moccasins, was broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and finely proportioned. His eyes were large, intelligent, expressive and friendly when in repose, and faithfully mirrored the varying moods of the great soul that looked through them. He was usually solemn, silent, and dignified, but on great occasions moved among assembled multitudes like a Titan among Lilliputians, and his lightest word was law.
When rising to speak in council or to tender advice, all eyes were turned upon him, and deep-toned, sonorous, and eloquent sentences rolled from his lips like the ceaseless thunders of cataracts flowing from exhaustless fountains, and his magnificent bearing was as noble as that of the most cultivated military chieftain in command of the forces of a continent. Neither his eloquence, his dignity, or his grace were acquired. They were as native to his manhood as leaves and blossoms are to a flowering almond.
His influence was marvelous. He might have been an emperor but all his instincts were democratic, and he ruled his loyal subjects with kindness and paternal benignity.
He was always flattered by marked attention from white men, and never so much as when seated at their tables, and on such occasions he manifested more than anywhere else the genuine instincts of a gentleman.
When Governor Stevens first arrived in Seattle and told the natives he had been appointed commissioner of Indian affairs for Washington Territory, they gave him a demonstrative reception in front of Dr. Maynard’s office, near the waterfront on Main Street. The bay swarmed with canoes and the shore was lined with a living mass of swaying, writhing, dusky humanity, until old Chief Seattle’s trumpet-toned voice rolled over the immense multitude, like the startling reveille of a bass drum, when silence became as instantaneous and perfect as that which follows a clap of thunder from a clear sky.
The governor was then introduced to the native multitude by Dr. Maynard, and at once commenced, in a conversational, plain, and straightforward style, an explanation of his mission among them, which is too well understood to require capitulation.
When he sat down, Chief Seattle arose with all the dignity of a senator, who carries the responsibilities of a great nation on his shoulders. Placing one hand on the, governor’s head and slowly pointing heavenward with the index finger of the other, he commenced his memorable address in solemn and impressive tones.
Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says, the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The white chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great, and I presume — good, White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our land but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country.

There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.

Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and that they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white man began to push our forefathers ever westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.

Our good father in Washington—for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since King George has moved his boundaries further north—our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors, so that our ancient enemies far to the northward — the Haidas and Tsimshians — will cease to frighten our women, children, and old men. The in reality he will be our father and we his children. But can that ever be? Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine! He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the paleface and leads him by the hand as a father leads an infant son. But, He has forsaken His Red children, if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax stronger every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man’s God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness? If we have a common Heavenly Father He must be partial, for He came to His paleface children. We never saw Him. He gave you laws but had no word for His red children whose teeming multitudes once filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No; we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies. There is little in common between us.

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors — the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness.

It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seems to be on the Red Man’s trail, and wherever he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.

A few more moon, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Ever part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.


Other speakers followed, but I took no notes. Governor Stevens’ reply was brief. He merely promised to meet them in general council on some future occasion to discuss the proposed treaty. Chief Seattle’s promise to adhere to the treaty, should one be ratified, was observed to the letter, for he was ever the unswerving and faithful friend of the white man. The above is but a fragment of his speech, and lacks all the charm lent by the grace and earnestness of the sable old orator, and the occasion.
-H.A. Smith.
Dr. Smith´s footnote:
(1) The Indians in early times thought that Washington was still alive. They knew the name to be that of a president, and when they heard of the president at Washington they mistook the name of the city for the name of the reigning chief. They thought, too, that King George was still England’s monarch, because the Hudson Bay traders called themselves “King George’s Men.” This innocent deception the company was shrewd enough not to explain away, for the Indians had more respect for them than they would have had, had they known England was ruled by a woman. Some of us have learned better.
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Last modified: May 31, 2012